Gaja wines are some of the most prestigious wines in the world. The Gaja family is often referred to as “The first family of Italian Wines”, committed to the highest standards of quality winemaking. Gaja’s method of sustainability and resiliency in the vineyards is the benchmark for winemakers around the globe, and one to be celebrated on this 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day in the premier hillside vineyards of Barbaresco with the charming Giovanni Gaja. Giovanni is the proud son of Angelo Gaja and the 5th generation of the esteemed Gaja family. Giovanni says, “having grown up around wine, he always knew he wanted to be involved in the family winery and be a part of his family’s rich heritage.”
It was a beautiful, sunny, vibrant day to visit the vineyard. At Sori San Lorenzo, I immediately sensed the natural and the wild untamed beauty of the Gaja vineyards. You could hear the birds singing in the background, smell the fresh breeze in the air, admire the mustard flowers lined in the rows of vineyards, and appreciate the cypress trees majestically perched in the background. The rich abundant biodiversity of the landscape was breathtaking.
The Gaja wines of Sori San Lorenzo made history when it became one of the earliest single-vineyard bottlings of Nebbiolo in Piedmont with the 1967 vintage. The best way to fully appreciate the efforts of the Gaja family to enrich the environment and the biodiversity of their land is to stand in the middle of the vineyards and absorb the grandeur of mother earth in Sori San Lorenzo.
In The Vineyards With Giovanni Gaja
Climate change was on Giovanni Gaja’s mind. Climate change is not a problem for Nebbiolo, it is just a challenge, yet in the last 25 years the Gaja family has radically changed their farming methods. Their focus begins with the vines. The goal is to create an environment for the vines to become adaptable and resilient, allowing the vines to defend themselves, without having the winemaker intervene. Giovanni stresses that resiliency in viticulture takes a lot of time to achieve, you need to give the vines time to adapt and understand the changes, especially for older vines.
Gaja – Building Resilience Through Biodiversity
To increase vine resiliency the Gaja family started to focus on life, and boosting the biodiversity in the vineyards, whereby enhancing the life in the vineyards. They increased the variety of grass, flowers, wildlife, and trees in the vineyards. “The beautiful thing about vines, is that they are able to communicate with each other, exchange information, and help each other”, says Giovanni. They want to have vines that are in a beautiful, diverse, and natural environment. The family realizes this may not improve the quality of the wines, but they think that allowing the vines to grow older and stronger in a biodiverse environment, will allow them to be more resilient.
Giovanni equated vines to people, he says “When you are young, you are full of life, and energy, but as you get older you lose energy and start to produce less, but you have gained a lifetime of knowledge, experience, and memory.” Like humans, as the vines grow older, they know how to fight sickness and disease. For the Gaja family these older vines are the most important heritage that they have. These older vines are the ones that move on to be replicated in their nursery for Nebbiolo. Whenever they have a need to replant vines or vineyards(which doesn’t happen often) of Nebbiolo, they use these old vines, that have come from their own vineyards. These vineyards have grown up in a biodiverse atmosphere, so they have the genes to fight and age gracefully.
A Focus On Life In The Gaja Vineyards
The Gaja family felt that in order to focus on life in the vineyards they first need to give life back to the soils. Since 1995 they started producing their own compost, they produce 70 tons of compost a year. They also introduced California Red Worms, which eat the compost. They also planted flowers, which in turn attracted many other wildflowers. The flowers draw insects into the vineyards, which are helpful in luring pollinating insects(bees and butterflies). The introduction of beehives also added to the biodiversity and life of the vineyards.
Cypress trees line Sori San Lorenzo, not typical of Piedmont as they are typically found in Tuscany. Cypress trees shelter birds, the thick and compact nature of these trees provide the ideal home. Birds are helpful, because, with climate change, and warmer weather every year, birds eliminate pests in the warm summer months.
Since 1995 they have abolished the use of chemicals(though they had not used much in the past either), now only sulfur and copper are used. Birds are natural predators, they get into the vineyards and eat the berries and at the same time, they eat vines. Thus abolishing the use of chemicals also helped protect the birds on the property.
Talking Cover Crops And Verticle Planting in Costa Russi
The next stop is Costa Russi Vineyards. Here in Costa Russi, they have planted legumes and grains like fava beans, barley, and wheat. Depending on the characteristics of the soils they plant either legumes or grains. Where they have powerful energetic soils, they plant grains, because grains reduce the strength of the soils. Where the soils need energy, they plant legumes, because legumes, take nitrogen from the air and give back to the soil, providing much-needed energy. These grains and legumes are planted at the end of May, after which they take a tractor and press them into the soil. This cover allows the soil to retain humidity, and also allows the soil to bear the heat of the summer months.
On Costa Russi they have verticle plantings of the vines(versus most other vineyards that plant horizontally). Vertical plantings allow them to fight erosion. Vertical planting also gives them more density per hectare. This vineyard has one of their highest density plantings(6000 vines per hectare), by having higher density, the vines are closer to each other, which mean more competition and less but higher quality fruit. Planting vertically gives them better exposure to the sun in this plot. Gionnavi also elaborated that with climate changes they have been getting stronger burst of rain. This verticle planting helps during these intense rainstorms because the roots help stabilize the soils, again going back to the concept of making the vines more resilient.
Effects of Climate Change
Warmer temperatures due to global warming and climate change have drastically changed harvest dates in the region, Nebbiolo has always been a late-ripening variety, and 40 years ago they started picking during the last week in October, and often times they were forced to stop picking in November due to snow. Today snow is not a problem, because harvest starts around the first week in October. Climate change has been impactful in the region as winter and snow arrive much later, in January and February. Giovanni says winters are shorter now, and summers are longer.
For Nebbiolo, climate change has been beneficial. In the past you could not drink Nebbiolo without 10 years of aging. Today, due to climate change, Barolos and Barbarescos are more approachable. This is evident in most recent vintages where the wines are drinkable now. Giovanni says Nebbiolo is becoming a more flexible variety; it is a wine you can age, or it is a wine you can drink young. Now the choice is in the hands of consumers’ preference.
“The Gaja Method”
Giovanni stresses that the Gaja family has been experimenting with these methods for a long time. He calls their vineyard practices “The Gaja Method”. They have learned through experiments and have learned through mistakes. Their main philosophy is resiliency, allowing the vines to become stronger and defend themselves on their own, without any intervention.
These “Gaja Methods” do not fall into categories or labels of biodynamic or organic, because at Gaja they are not selling a method, they are simply selling the highest quality wines possible. Behind the Gaja brand, consumers know they are working in a sustainable fashion. The Gaja family does not know if these practices produce better wines, and they may never know this. What they do know, is that they are protecting the land, the vines, the environment, and the biodiversity of Mother Earth.